The human scandal of Britain’s asylum system

By Peter Tatchell
5 Sep 2007

The United Kingdom’s asylum system is rigged to fail as many applicants as possible. It is unjust, chaotic and inhumane. Here I am going to highlight the major concerns and then let some key witnesses speak for themselves.

Innocent asylum applicants who have committed no crime, including children, are held in asylum detention centres. They are detained like common criminals in prison-like conditions, pending a ruling on their claims. Some spend several months, or even a year or more, in detention. Those detained have fewer legal rights than a person charged with murder or rape.

There have been persistent allegations of mistreatment in asylum detention centres; including allegations of racist and homophobic abuse, sexual harassment, physical assaults, deficient medical care and restricted access to legal representatives. Detained victims of torture often get little or no treatment and counselling, which prolongs their suffering and trauma.

The ‘fast-track’ asylum processing system does not give applicants adequate time to prepare their claims and gather corroborating medical and human rights evidence. Moreover, cuts in legal aid mean that solicitors no longer receive sufficient funding to prepare fully documented asylum applications.

All the solicitors I have spoken to agree that the number of hours paid by legal aid for the preparation of each asylum application is insufficient. It does not cover all the work required to produce a professional application or appeal.

The preparation of a proper asylum case involves a solicitor taking a detailed statement from the applicant, which can be especially slow and laborious because many applicants do not speak English and are deeply traumatised due to torture or to the murder of their friends and family.

Case preparation also involves securing corroborating affidavits from witnesses and family members in far-flung countries, obtaining expert reports from academics and human rights groups, organising medical examinations and documentation to confirm assault and torture, and researching the legal basis of the claim and the relevant case law.

The government expects legal aid solicitors to be able to do all this with a mere few hours' work. In most cases, this is impossible. The wholly inadequate legal aid fees mean that most asylum applicants never have their case adequately presented to the Home Office - which is the way the government likes it, because it increases the "fail" rate and boosts deportations.

The under-funding of legal aid asylum cases means that many reputable law firms have pulled out of asylum work. A few firms struggle on heroically, doing good quality legal aid asylum work at a financial loss. This leaves the field open to less scrupulous solicitors.

Not surprisingly, then, many asylum claims fail. This results in genuine refugees being labelled as 'bogus' and deported back to their home countries to face further persecution.

There are reports of asylum deportees being violently restrained and incapacitated to force them onto planes. When they get back to their countries of origin, some are arrested, jailed and tortured, despite Home Office assurances that it was safe for them to return.

This is the harsh, cruel reality of Labour’s asylum system. The government’s priority is to cut asylum numbers, with little concern for the merits of individual cases. It is a policy devoid of justice or compassion.

To explore both the policy and humanitarian concerns in more detail, I recently interviewed three people who have long worked on these issues for my Doughty Street TV programme. If you have broadband internet access you can watch it here.

The witnesses are Dr Frank Arnold, who is clinical advisor to the Medical Justice network; Puck de Raadt, an asylum worker with the Churches' Commission on Racial Justice (part of the ecumenical body Churches Together in Britain and Ireland); and Maria, a former asylum detainee who fled persecution in an ex-Soviet bloc state (her full identity is withheld, to protect her family against retribution).

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(c) Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner and member of OutRage! (http://www.petertatchell.net). He is Green Party parliamentary candidate for Oxford East. Talking With Tatchell is broadcast every Friday night at 8.30pm on the internet TV channel, www.18doughtystreet.com

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